The Rape of Our Military Women

Kelley B. Vlahos's picture
By Kelley B. Vlahos, on May 15, 2012

When Washington needed women to carry out its two-front war of choice, they were there, lending more than 255,000 female volunteers to the mission. Today, women make up approximately 15 percent of the active duty force and 20 percent of the reserve components.

Simply put, the military would not have been able to wage the Long War without them.

Several women say they were involuntary discharged after reporting sexual assault in military.

Now, in yet another example of how the military repays their time in the meat grinder, a number of women have come forward to say they were discharged for “personality disorders,” – which means no healthcare, no disability benefits — after they filed sexual assault charges with the chain of command against fellow servicemen.

Gone. Finished. Thanks, but no thanks for your service.

Whatever we might think of the war, the systematic abuse of the enlisted and our veterans is an ongoing disgrace as old as this country. But today’s wars abroad have no end in sight, and we’ve only begun to see how the government is failing to uphold its promises. In this space alone, we have covered the Pentagon’s ongoingdenials of illness due to the burn pits and other environmental hazards in-theater. We’ve talked about how soldiers and Marines with mental health issues have beenput back into harm’s way for repeated tours of duty. We’ve criticized the lack of mental health care, the over-medication of troops, and revelations that the Army and other branches of service are discharging soldiers for personality disorders when they really have PTSD and/or traumatic brain injuries.

Now it turns out that after shock-integrating women into what is still largely an obdurate, misogynistic institution, the Pentagon is ill-equipped to deal with the staggering rise of rape and assault, the predatory behavior and harassment, and the callous nature of battlefield commanders, who in a growing number of documented cases, have reacted to the plight of young female service members with the grace of Pleistocene Neanderthals.

“In a system that is entirely built on rank and intimidation, it is no wonder that survivors do not come forward more often about the most brutal and horrifying experience of their lives,” said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) in an interview with Stars and Stripes in April.

According to the Pentagon’s most recent data (.pdf), 3,192 military sexual assaults were reported in fiscal year 2011, an increase of 1 percent from 2010. The key here is even the military admits that the vast number of assaults are not reported. The Department of Defense (DoD) estimates that in 2010, for example, only 13.5 percent of assaults were reported, indicating that the total number was closer to 19,000.

Of the 3,192 reported assaults, only 8 percent went to trial and of them, 191 individuals were convicted. Some 10 percent of the alleged perpetrators quit the military before they could face charges. As though these odds against justice weren’t daunting enough, victims now face the real possibility that their own commanders and fellow soldiers could turn against them, that they might be passed over for well-deserved promotions, or be transferred and removed from duty altogether.

“There remains a culture of hostility toward people who have found the courage to speak out about what happened to them,” said Michael Wishnie, who founded and runs the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale University. He spoke at the 2012 Summit on Military Security Violence sponsored by SWAN in Washington last week.

In an explosive story last month, CNN interviewed several women from each branch of service who said they were raped or assaulted by a military peer, and after they reported the incident, each were eventually separated from the military for personality or adjustment disorders.

Former Marine Stephanie Schroeder said a fellow Marine had followed her into a bathroom in 2002, punched her and raped her. A non-commissioned officer who took her complaint dismissed the allegation, she recalled, saying, “don’t come bitching to me because you had sex and changed your mind.” Not long after, she was diagnosed with a personality disorder and kicked out of the Corps.

Jenny McClendonwas serving on a Navy destroyer when she says a superior raped her while on an overnight watch. She was also diagnosed with a personality disorder and deemed “unfit” after filing a complaint with the command. “I was good enough to suit up and show up and serve,” she told CNN, “but I wasn’t good enough after the fact.”

Meanwhile, Panayiota Bertzikis received an “adjustment disorder” diagnosis and was forced out of the Coast Guard after reporting that she was punched in the face and raped by a shipmate in 2006. After she had gone to her superior with the complaint, the Chief of her Coast Guard station ordered her and her attacker to work together, cleaning out an attic on base, “to work out their differences.”

“I am the victim of this crime, and then you report it, and it felt like I was on trial — I was the one who did something wrong,” she said. “He got a free pass. I was the one fighting to stay in.”

Lt. Celeste Moore, a 17-year veteran of the Navy, said she was separated from service after reporting she had been raped in the middle of the night at a forward operating base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. She was three years short of retirement when they diagnosed her with an adjustment disorder, which means she lost her pension.

(An adjustment disorder is clinically described as an excessive response to a stressful event. Symptoms include not eating, depression, physical complaints, even suicidal thoughts. It can, however, be treated, and typically does not last for more than six months.)

It’s convenient for the military not to worry about treatment, though. Instead, a discharge allows the service to cheaply sweep potentially embarrassing assault allegations under the rug. But for the veteran, getting a “PD” or “AD” discharge can be catastrophic. Not only does it carry a stigma for future employers, it cuts the veteran off from a series of benefits, including health care and service-related disability compensation.

Of course vets can appeal, but the process has been described as an “uphill battle.” Considering there are close to a million backlogged claims in the VA system right now, this seems like an understatement.

There is no way to determine how many female, or male victims (179 men in the Army, for example, filed complaints of assault, including rape, in 2011, according to the DoD), have been discharged on these erroneous diagnoses, because the DoD told CNN it does not keep track of which of its 30,000 personality disorder discharges from 2001 to 2010 involved a sexual harassment claim. The Pentagon also refused to comment on specific cases.

Nonetheless, advocates believe it’s happening a lot more than we know. They point to the statistics the Pentagon does keep, and wonder why a disproportionate number of women are being kicked out of the service with personality disorders, which is clinically defined as “a long-standing, inflexible pattern of maladaptive behavior and coping, beginning in adolescence or early childhood.”

(In other words, the military says you’re a certified misfit, and conveniently, it has nothing to do with your service — not battlefield stress, brain injury nor sexual trauma).

According to the statistics, women make up 16 percent of the Army, yet represent 24 percent of the PD discharges. Women make up 6.9 percent of the Marines, but are 14 percent of the discharges. There are similar disproportions in the Navy and Air Force. “It’s the default position the military uses,” charged U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, (D-CA.), who insists the institution uses PDs “robotically” to drum sex assault victims who complain, out of the service.

Speier has introduced legislation in the House that would take sexual assault cases out of the chain of command and assign them to an independent oversight office at the Pentagon. Meanwhile, Reps. Mike Turner (R-OH), and Niki Tsongas, (D-MA),introduced a bill in April that, in part, would allow military victims of sexual assault to transfer away from their alleged perpetrators while their cases are being investigated, plus give them confidential access to legal services and mental health care so that what they say in private won’t eventually be used against them.

Meanwhile, DoD Secretary Leon Panetta attempted to tamp down the growing tension over what is now being referred to in some quarters as an “epidemic” of sexual harassment and assault in the services by announcing new rules in April in which victims will report sex assaults farther up the chain of command to the colonel level, where prosecutions would be emphasized. He also announced the creation of a Special Victims Unit, promising to “fundamentally change the way the department deals with this problem.”

Advocates say all this attention is a fine – even “radical” – first step. But keep in mind, following a series of heartbreaking investigative stories and a congressional investigation in 2007 into the PD discharges of soldiers with PTSD and traumatic brain injury, similar bureaucratic reforms were instituted, including supposedly stricter guidelines for using the discharge.

But in March, a study conducted by Wishnie’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic and Vietnam Veterans of America found that in addition to the total number of PDs increasing 20 percent, hundreds of service members have been discharged illegally since 2008, meaning the services are flouting the new DoD rules and are leaving scores of soldiers, sailors, air men and Marines — many of them who had done repeated tours of duty in the war zone — high and dry with no benefits.

Seeing that it was then-Sen. Barack Obama, who first introduced language to address the problem on Capitol Hill, he might want to give this issue extra special attention.

We won’t hold our breath. Meanwhile, the military often seems like its own “tribal confederacy,” playing by its own rules. It has recruited women zealously to swell its ranks at a time when force strength was straining against the demands of a two-front war. But it still cannot bring itself to confront its maladapted response to the growing role of women in close ranks.

To make a larger point, the Afghan occupation and Iraq invasion/occupation, were wars of choice that required millions of volunteers rotating in and out of those countries, many more than once. If the military was willing to sacrifice the lives of women to make it happen, then they should have tried harder to soften the blow of this shock-integration of women into its predominantly male spaces, by starting with the service academies and the unit commanders who set the tone.

In other words, you can’t have your damn wars and devour your soldiers, too.